Marco Ferreri is probably best known (notorious) for La Grande Bouffe a film where a group of friends go to a hideaway to eat themselves to death which was either just an exercise in the grotesque or a satire on the bourgeoise. It’s really up the viewer on that one. but then Ferreri’s career with his direction and writing was taunting and gleefully blackly playful with social mores.

The Ape Woman made in 1964 is much more straightforward in its attack of humans’ capacity for cruelty and exploitation. However this digital and Blu-ray release has two versions of the ending: the original where he leaves no doubt where his sympathies are, while the other (not necessarily an alternate) is frankly a happier ending.

Based on the true story of a woman who was covered in hairs and exploited by carnival performers, the film opens with Maria (Annie Giradot) working away in a convent kitchen keeping herself away from the public embarrassed by her appearance. A lowlife hustler Antonio (Ugo Tognazzi) is there with a slide show of his missionary work when he stumbles into the kitchen. There noticing that Maria is on the shy side he pressures her colleagues and eventually her to reveal herself.

Ingratiating himself with Maria he spots and opportunity to make some money. Taking her away from the convent he sets up a bizarre sideshow whereby he acts out the part of the ringmaster cracking the whip while Maria cavorts around on a tree and subjected to the crowd’s shouting and touching her.

She’s clearly upset by the whole business, although now more assertive, she remains charmed and convinced by Antonio’s bull. Offers come for them to work in Paris which includes nudity. Again Maria is uncomfortable but can’t pull herself away from Antonio to whom he is now married for no reason other than it gives him rights over her. She becomes pregnant and this is where the films endings differ.
The original has her dying in childbirth with Antonio exploiting her to the very end taking Maria’s and her child’s bodies from the museum to exhibit them. While the other ending has a far more upbeat conclusion and her conforming to perceived social physical norms. Both in their own way are tragic.

Both Todd Browning’s Freaks and David Lynch's The Elephant Man come to mind though it doesn’t have the visceral anger of the former, or the scathing exposure of social hypocrisy of the latter . The exploitation here is coolly savage as Antonio disarms Maria’s defences despite her having moments of clarity when she could have dumped him eventually falling back under his spell.

These are masterful performances from Giradot and Tognazzi, the latter hardly stopping for breath with his non-stop patter to anyone who needs to hear him, seemingly wearing them down rather than convincing. Giradot appears pathetic and lost at times though what we see is a not uncommon story of a vulnerable woman’s hopes raised, exploited then mercilessly dashed.

The Ape Woman is available on digital and Blu-ray from 11 October. The disc has a 90 minute documentary on Marco Ferreri.

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